Bristol-Myers toes the next hep C frontier: a four-week cure

Gilead Sciences' ($GILD) Sovaldi has broken sales records thanks to its ability to cure hepatitis C with an effective, if costly, 12-week regimen. But rivals believe there's plenty of room in the market for a speedier solution, and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) plans to use its ex-partner's blockbuster to craft a four-week contender.

As the company told Reuters, it plans to kick off a trial next month combining Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) with its own daclatasvir and asunaprevir, forming an oral cocktail Bristol-Myers believes could notch near-100% cure rates while cutting treatment time down to as little as four weeks.

The initial study will be a 30-patient exploratory affair, testing the combo as both a four- and 6-week therapy, Bristol-Myers' hepatitis chief Eric Hughes told Reuters. If the combo comes through with the necessary high cure rates, the company will expand its efforts to include more patients with diverse hep C genotypes.

Bristol-Myers is among a cadre of drugmakers undaunted by Gilead's brisk success with Sovaldi, which analysts say could bring in more than $8 billion this year. AbbVie ($ABBV) is racing ahead with a four-drug cocktail treatment that eliminates the need for painful interferon, expected to receive U.S. and European approvals this year and hit the market just behind a similar Sovaldi-based combo from Gilead. Bristol-Myers and Merck ($MRK) are working up similar piggyback therapies that have notched sky-high cure rates in clinical trials.

But those are all 12-week regimens, and many believe the next big catalyst to open up the already-blockbuster hep C market will be the debut of a four-week cure.

"We got rid of the tolerability problem. We got rid of the efficacy problem. Now there is a tremendous drive to get down to shorter treatment durations," Hughes told Reuters.

Roger Perlmutter, Merck's head of R&D, is in that camp. The company splurged $3.9 billion on Idenix Pharmaceuticals ($IDIX) this month in order to get its hands on complementary hep C treatment that, combined with Merck's in-development antivirals, has the potential to cure hep C in all genotypes with limited side effects, all in just four weeks.

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